It’s a-swullocking and a-sweltering out there this summer, and we are all longing for the sweet smell of petrichor – the now-legendary term for the scent of rain after a long dry spell. English of course does rain and cold very well, whether you’re thunderplumped by a sudden downpour or hunkering down when it begins to ‘feefle’ (gently snow).
Our language is less forthcoming when it comes to intense heat, though clearly, it’s going to need to catch up as we and our world continue to burn. For the height of summer, however, there are some beautiful and recombobulating words we can draw on. Here are ten words and expressions from historical dictionaries that might serve us well for the next few weeks.
We are truly experiencing dog day afternoons – the hottest days of summer when dogs can do little except hug the shade as best they can. Rather than taking their name from our canine friends however, these times of languorous inactivity are named after Sirius, the Dog Star, long associated with sultry weather in the northern hemisphere because it rises simultaneously with the sun during the hottest days of summer.
When we look back on the summers of our youth, we might reach for the adjective ‘halcyon’, an exquisite word that has come to describe times of happiness, success, and serenity. The halcyon was a mythical bird associated in ancient times with the kingfisher. Legend told how it laid its eggs in a floating nest on the sea, which was duly calmed by the god of the winds to ensure an unruffled and peaceful time of incubation.
We all know about ‘hibernation’ when we retreat from the harshness of winter, but what do we do when we retire during the summer? The answer is we ‘estivate’, meaning to spend any prolonged period of hot and dry conditions in a state of torpor or suspended animation.
On slumberous summer days, when we might long to be swaying gently in a hammock, the word ‘psithurism’ (with a silent ‘p’) might waft into view. Like its beautiful cousin ‘susurrus’, it describes the whispering of trees in a summer breeze, or the murmuring of the waves as they roll into the shore.
Such whispering might well come from a zephyr, a soft gentle breeze characteristic of still summer days and immortalised by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In Greek myth, Zephyrus was the god of the west wind, considered the most clement of all in contrast to the god of the north wind, Boreas.
Zwodder was born for lazy, daydreamy summer days. It is described in the English Dialect Dictionary as ‘a drowsy, stupid state of body and mind’. Enough said, surely.
We have a curious affection for the word ‘mafting’ – or ‘maftin’, as most of us know it. Born in the North East, and particularly beloved by those from Hull, it means sweltering or uncomfortably hot, leaving us totally oppressed, stifled, and ‘mafted’.
Summer is the time for pootling, sauntering, and coddiwompling (setting off with no particular destination in mind), when our bodies and our minds meander. Meandering was one all about the Meander River, which runs a twisting, winding course from the highlands of Phyrigia into the Aegean Sea.
Finally, what better way to spend a sultry summer’s evening than bank-a-bonking? Fear not, this is simply an old dialect expression for lying lazily on a river bank. Summer Days, driftin’ away.
Want to hear more from Susie about the infinitely bizarre and fascinating world of language? She’s speaking to the top brass of British comedy and entertainment about just that, and it’s all free to listen to here on whynow.